Generating a Buzz: EOAS Team Uses Honey as an Environmental Biomonitor

March 21, 2019

Researchers from EOAS analyzed honey from beehives in six Metro Vancouver neighborhoods to test its potential as an urban biomonitor. Since honey bees typically forage within a two- to three-kilometre radius of their hives, honey can provide a geochemical “snapshot” of the local environment.  The study – the first of its kind in North America – was published last week in Nature Sustainability.

The study involves 5 researchers from EOAS, including Kate Smith, Dominique Weis, Marg Amini, Vivian Lai and Kathy Gordon, as well as former EOAS PhD student Alyssa Shiel (now Assistant Professor at OSU).  Analyses were carried out at UBC’s Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research.

The researchers found that the honey in Vancouver is extremely clean, well below the worldwide average for heavy metals like lead.  However, they found that the concentration of elements was higher in honey from areas with heavy traffic, higher urban density and industrial activity. They also compared the lead isotopic compositions of the honey to those from other local environmental samples including lichen, trees, rocks, and sediment. They discovered that the lead “fingerprints” of the honey did not match any local, naturally-occurring lead and instead pointed to potential manmade sources of lead.

The research team has been featured on numerous tv and radio broadcasts for local stations including Global BC, CityNews, OMNI and CKNW.  Their work has also captured the attention of the international media, with articles published by news outlets as far away as India, China and Spain. Highlights so far include coverage by the New York Times, BBC, National Geographic and Canadian Geographic.

The four-year study provides a present-day baseline against which future changes in Metro Vancouver’s environment can be compared as the city grows.  It may also serve as a useful model for other cities around the world, particularly where environmental monitoring infrastructure is currently not available.  Lastly, this study represents a successful example of community collaboration, benefitting from aspects of ‘citizen science’ as well as a partnership with Hives for Humanity, a local non-profit that creates opportunities for people to engage in the therapeutic culture that surrounds the hive.

Additional links:

UBC Press Release: https://science.ubc.ca/news/honey-bees-can-help-monitor-pollution-cities

YouTube video: https://youtu.be/sKkEF1KdPM4